The South Asia Channel

Could Helmand be the Dubai of Afghanistan?

Known as an insurgent hotbed and the heroin capital of the world, Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand province has been given more than a few headline-grabbing labels over the past few years. Now, Helmand’s governor is trying to add a new one: the next Dubai. After nearly four years at the epicenter of conflict, this dusty, downtrodden ...

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Known as an insurgent hotbed and the heroin capital of the world, Afghanistan’s troubled Helmand province has been given more than a few headline-grabbing labels over the past few years. Now, Helmand’s governor is trying to add a new one: the next Dubai. After nearly four years at the epicenter of conflict, this dusty, downtrodden bit of desert is poised to make a bid for massive development that, according to its governor, Gulab Mangal, will radically transform it. Such a shift would go a long way to justifying the international intervention and contribute to the crucial goal of winning Afghans’ hearts and minds. With U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposed drawdown barely a year in the future, however, Helmand is faced with a very short window to build lasting change.

Judging from a recent trip I took to the capital, Lashkar Gah, much progress has already been made. The roads in the capital have been paved, cutting down on the ubiquitous fine sand that once clogged machinery, stifled lungs, and polluted food. Buildings are going up, more and more businesses and private organizations are opening branches in Lashkar Gah, and there are almost daily commercial flights in and out of the Lashkar Gah airport. A brand-new shopping mall and hotel are being built. The Afghan police have a shiny new compound, and the Department of Women’s Affairs has been given a large center on the town’s outskirts, an area that would have been too dangerous to visit one year ago.

Despite the occasional Taliban attack inside the city, there is an air of calm and security in the capital. Women and children can be seen on the streets, shops have a distinct bustle, and I felt a sense of hope and promise in the air. In the summer of 2007 I couldn’t walk around the downtown area without a burqa; on this trip I fastened my headscarf a little more tightly and spent some time in the bazaar, poking around bolts of brightly colored fabric and contemplating an update to my wardrobe. I attracted a crowd — mostly young boys who wanted to shake my hand while lisping "salaam," but no hostility, no nervous glances to see who might be watching. This, too, is a big change.

Mangal has plans to turn the single paved strip of runway in Helmand into a regional hub for air operations. Landlocked and remote, Helmand has little access to regional or international markets. But if all goes according to the governor’s outline — Mangal is building a fruit-processing plant on the airport grounds, giving farmers a convenient destination for their produce — industry will bloom, turning Helmand’s abundant fruit into gold, or at least juice suitable for export.

Another sign of hope is the declining state of the local poppy industry. Poppy cultivation took a giant dip last year, and the government is confidently predicting another significant decrease this season. Two years ago there was a large field of beautiful pink and white poppies growing in the shadow of the British military base, right inside the Lashkar Gah city limits. Now it would take a drive of several hours to find a major crop.

It’s not yet clear what sparked the move away from drugs, but Mangal claims that his Food Zone program, a complex counternarcotics approach combining alternative livelihood with punitive measures for violators, along with a wide-ranging public awareness campaign, is responsible.

It is true that farmers inside the Food Zone, which includes the most fertile and highly populated areas of central Helmand, are reluctant to grow poppy — perhaps because they will lose the wheat seeds and fertilizer the government is providing, or maybe because of the mandatory jail time.

But the Food Zone program ran into difficulties last year, when several of its top administrators were arrested for corruption. Thousands of fictitious names were added to lists of beneficiaries, allowing those in charge to claim tens of thousands of dollars for themselves; poor-quality wheat seeds were distributed to farmers while the funders were charged for premium grade, yielding nearly $1 million in illegal profits. The scandal has tainted the project, especially for farmers who were denied benefits while those with connections were able to cash in.

And the decline in the trade is probably more due to the fact that growing poppy in Helmand just isn’t a smart business decision anymore. In the past three years, the price of a kilo of raw opium has dropped from about $140 to $35 — mostly because of overproduction — and isn’t expected to rise again anytime soon.

If the government can establish permanent control over much of the province, poppy cultivation will fall. But despite encouraging signs, Helmand province is still, largely, a war zone, and the government and coalition forces have to do more than pave roads and undercut the poppy trade to change that. Despite the governor’s claims that his forces have "influence" over up to 90 percent of the province, wide swaths of Helmand are still firmly under Taliban control — districts like Washir, Dishu, Baghran, and Sangin, where the insurgents can recover, regroup, and plan their next steps.

The Afghan government and foreign forces say their military incursions have focused first on the more heavily populated areas; certainly Washir and Dishu have just a few thousand families. But Sangin is a major center and will require a great deal of effort to subdue.

Meanwhile, Musa Qala, a hotly disputed district that changed hands three times in just over a year, from October 2006 to December 2007, is still up for grabs, though the government asserts that it is completely under control. A combined British, U.S., and Afghan force took it back from the Taliban in December 2007, promising aid and development. Now, more than two years later, Afghan government forces grumble privately that they control no more than a 400-square-meter plot in the district center. Promises fell through, commitments failed, and the Taliban were able to reassert their influence over most of the district.

Marjah, the drug bazaar and heroin-processing center that was site of the major recent offensive, has now been downgraded to a "tactical prelude" to the Kandahar operation planned for the summer. The easy assumption is that Marjah has been "sorted" — with 15,000 Afghan and foreign forces pitted against a handful of insurgents, it could hardly have appeared otherwise.

But it’s dangerous to treat the Taliban like an occupying army that can be driven out with guns and bombs. They are, as we are now hearing more and more, part of the fabric of Afghan society.

"The former Taliban are now participating in cash-for-work programs, cleaning out ditches, and cleaning their shops," Mangal said. "This shows they have reintegrated back into society."

It’s probably not accurate to say that the Taliban have reintegrated back into society. Instead, they know they are outnumbered, and they are biding their time. They may have removed their black pajj — the typical Taliban headgear — and replaced them with more neutrally colored lunghi, or turbans, but they have not changed their strategy, or their determination.

"The Taliban are building their nests again, [in Marjah]," Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, a prominent local journalist, told me recently. He thinks that insurgents are just lying low, waiting for a chance to show their power once the foreigners have moved on. " "They are lying in wait in houses, with their guns and their explosives. They go out at night to shoot foreign forces and plant mines, then they are quiet during the day," he said. "Marjah is not secure."

Part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s revised counterinsurgency strategy is designed to cement military gains with a charm offensive to win hearts and minds. Night raids have been almost abandoned and house searches greatly reduced in frequency. But this also gives the insurgents the time and space they need to regroup, even within Marjah.

Although the window is small, there is still time. If foreign troops can rehabilitate their image in the eyes of a hostile population, then they might be able to make some real progress. If the government can convince its local constituents that it is serious about fighting corruption and encouraging development, and if the Taliban can be exposed as an anachronistic irrelevancy, then Helmand’s hardheaded, pragmatic residents might decide to cast their lot with the central authorities.

But if promises turn out to be hollow, as they have so many times before, the Taliban are always there with their rough and ready justice, their guarantee of security for poppy harvests, and their long knives sharpened against "spies."

There is some reason to be hopeful. Lashkar Gah’s transformation shows that Helmand’s residents are more than ready to pitch in and build a better future if they have the opportunity. But there’s much more reason to be cautious. If we lose Helmand, then we will never be able to claim victory in Afghanistan.

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